Honor with a ‘little h’
Students expected to wrestle with ethical development during undergrad years
Lincoln Ross Barbour
By Dan Heuchert
By ones and twos, 15 students escaped the chill of a dreary March afternoon and filed into the basement of Pavilion I, spilling into couches and chairs until seating became scarce. Some scrounged a few more chairs from another room; others simply sat on the floor. They remained mostly quiet, awaiting instruction.
Finally, a young woman spoke up from her perch on a stool in the corner. “Did everyone watch a half-hour of TV?”
“At least a half hour,” a young man replied, not quite under his breath.
“Did you pay attention to the ads?”
The questioner was one of two undergraduate facilitators for the small-group portion of “Honor and Ethics in Everyday Life,” a one-credit, half-semester course. (An interdisciplinary team of faculty speakers leads the large-group sessions.) With the ice broken, students spent the next hour engaged in a lively, occasionally rambling discussion of ethics in advertising — venturing opinions, challenging one another and demonstrating a thorough immersion in popular culture.
The course is one of many ways that U.Va. seeks to infuse the concept of “small-h” honor into the undergraduate experience. UVa. is well-known for “big-h” Honor, as in “Honor System” and “Honor Committee,” but that makes up only a portion of the education that University leaders hope students will bring with them into the “real world.”
U.Va.’s emphasis on ethical education is unusual for a public university, said Darden professor and ethics expert Patricia Werhane. “U.Va. has that Jeffersonian tradition,” she said. “You see that a lot more in Catholic, religious universities, and less so in public universities.”
Werhane led a pan-University team, dubbed “Envision Integrity,” that examined the notion of ethics in undergraduate life. In a 2002 report, the task force recommended a holistic approach to ethics education, targeting the entire University community, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and parents.
Such an approach “would really link back to Jefferson’s ideal” of creating an educated, ethical citizenry, Werhane said. “He was able to do it on a small scale, but we would like to do it on a larger scale.”
The Pavilion I group discussion stemmed from that effort. It also reflected one of its toughest challenges — inducing today’s students not only to think ethically, but to act upon their ideals.
“I don’t think my generation would be the one to start a revolution,” first-year student Robin Schick said after the seminar as her classmates poured back out into the cold. “When it comes to personal decisions, we make the right choices. But when it comes to standing out there and making a statement, we tend to back off.”
Her reluctance applies to less revolutionary situations, too. Asked how she would approach an honor violator, she said, “I’m not going to cheat. But if somebody next to me was cheating, I don’t think I’d do anything about it. … I’m only a first-year.”
That’s a common attitude, said fourth-year student Meghan Sullivan, chairwoman of the Honor Committee.
“Students are very service-minded. They want to do well,” she said. “But they don’t want to grapple with ethically messy issues. … When it comes down to making hard decisions, students back away.” They prefer to let faculty handle suspected honor violations, she said; according to Honor Committee statistics, undergraduates initiate only about one in eight cases.
Religious studies professor James Childress is less downcast. The director of U.Va.’s Institute for Practical Ethics sees ethical development as a process. He wouldn’t expect most first-year students to arrive wholly formed and ready to enforce the single sanction, for example.
“We work on their imagination as well as the process of reasoning — not only what can be done and should be done, but to see themselves as the agents for doing it,” Childress said. “But if you can’t see what the right thing is, then motivation doesn’t matter.”
The institute has helped develop four new interdisciplinary degree programs: undergraduate majors in human biology and environmental thought and practice, and master’s programs in public health and public policy.
The institute’s course offerings — drawing more than 1,100 undergraduate and graduate students in each of the past two academic years — are designed to teach ethics not as a solitary, separate topic, but in real-life contexts. They include two highly successful team-taught, three-credit courses, “Environmental Choices in the 21st Century” and “21st Century Choices: War, Justice, Human Rights.” Another one-credit course, “Ethics and Integrity in Contemporary Life,” which enrolls more than 100 students each time it is offered, tackles ethics in several settings, including sports, information technology usage, law, business, health care, and corporate and professional life.
“We want to show undergraduates that ethical issues are not separate from what they find in real life,” Childress said. “Rather, ethics are embedded in the fabric of professional life, as well as in relationships and everyday issues.”
Ruth Gaare Bernheim, the institute’s assistant director, has led seminars for student-athletes, and finds among them a hunger for discussing ethical case studies.
“There is no question that students walk around feeling tremendous conflict and ethical tension” and welcome discussions in “safe” settings, she said. “They feel the pulls of loyalty to friends vs. loyalty to the school; obligations to teammates vs. the obligations to uphold their own personal values.
“We need to create forums where students can express their conflicts and have dialogues using ethical frameworks.”
Even the “big-h” Honor Committee has entered the field of “small-h” honor. Besides sponsoring the “Honor and Ethics in Everyday Life” class that met in Pavilion I, the committee last year piloted a “dorm liaison” program, sending two honor educators to each of two first-year dorms to lead casual, pizza-fueled discussions on what it means to be honorable. The pilot was successful enough to have been expanded to all of the first-year dorms this year.
The discussions emphasize the concept of community and student’s responsibilities to each other, their friends and the University community, said fourth-year student Barrie Moorman, co-chairwoman of Residence Life.
“I think it was really beneficial, because students see the Honor System and don’t really see how it applies to everyday life,” she said.
Those kinds of discussions are vital, Bernheim said. Students need to have the chance to venture opinions, test them and reform them in those safe settings before testing their mettle in the real world.
“The hope is that during the college years, individuals will develop the ethical framework and ability to think through ethical challenges on their own — and address them on their own,” she said.